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Tuesday, September 21, 2021

How the British created the Indian ‘caste system’

This video by Rajiv Malhotra, like most of his videos, poses a radical question: Did the British create the Indian ‘caste system’? Weaving in nuanced perspectives grounded in well researched facts, evidence and layered with logical arguments, Rajiv Malhotra pares away the layers of untruth, falsities and misinterpretations to uncover a sinister ploy used by British colonialism to Break Bharat. Sadly, the colonial  conspiracy, spearheaded by Colonial Indology, is today a deeply entrenched reality in the sociocultural fabric of contemporary Bharat.

In his pathbreaking book Breaking India, Rajiv Malhotra traces the development of the blatantly erroneous Aryan Invasion Theory (AIT) proposed by Max Muller, the well-known German Indologist who was employed by the East India Company to create a false narrative that furthered  the colonial ambition to balkanize and splinter the country through their notorious divide and rule policy. Sadly, their repercussions are being felt even in the jaundiced lenses used  to deconstruct socio cultural issues in  the contemporary world, especially in Bharat.

For instance, “Several foreign operated  and financed projects such as the Afro-Dalit project  frame inter jati-varna interactions and the Dalit Movement using American cultural and historical lenses. The Afro-Dalit project purports to paint the Dalits as the ‘Blacks’ of India  and  non Dalits as India’s Whites.”

“The history of American racism, slavery and Black/White relationships is thus superimposed on Bharatiya society. While modern caste structures and inter relationships have included long periods of prejudice towards Dalits, the Dalit experience bears little resemblance to the African slave experience of America,” writes  Rajiv Malhotra in the introduction to Breaking India, which was inspired by his random conversation  with an African-America scholar who had just returned from Bharat, where he was working with the Afro-Dalit project.

In Breaking India, Malhotra writes that in the late eighteenth century, the Indologist  Max Muller proposed the ‘Aryan’ category strictly as a linguistic group. However, this was soon transformed by colonial administrators  who used Race Science—the deliberate misuse of science to justify and perpetuate racial discrimination—to make a taxonomical division of traditional Bharatiya communities.

The castes designated as ‘non Aryan’ (such as people form the south of the country and tribal people) were marginalised or secluded in depictions of Hindu society.  Simultaneously, Church evangelists working in the South of Bharat  fabricated a Dravidian race identity. They delinked Tamil culture from its pan-Bharat matrix and claimed that its spirituality was closer to Christianity than the ‘Aryan’ people who were said to have lived in the north of the country.

“That the new narrative of the Aryan Invasion Theory was fake is provide by the complete absence of any mention  of Aryan invasion in Dravidian literature. There is nothing about it in the huge canon of ancient Tamil literature, that speaks of  such an invasion. Neither is there any mention about invasions by people from the North of the country into the South,” says Malhotra.

European scholars  in the  eighteenth century  invented ‘Race Science’—a dubious scientific method that sought to classify human races according to the  shape and size of the nose.   The British colonial administrators seized the opportunity  to utilize it as a  governance and administration weapon and later as an entry point for evangelical proselytization.

“Employing imaginary racial categories based on vague Biblical reference points, they imposed these racist categories like signposts on top of  the many distinctive regional and linguistic communities in India. These imported classifications led to greater fragmentation and conflicts within the country.  Max Muller’s  interpretation of Vedic literature in terms of  clash between two racial groups, led him to search for physical features in the Vedas that would identify the groups physically.  And so, Muller tentatively interpreted nose length as one such differentiating feature,” writes Malhotra in Breaking India.  

The architect of this campaign was Sir Herbert Hope Risley (1851-1911), a powerful and influential colonial bureaucrat at the Royal Anthropological Institute, who developed the Nasal Index (the ratio of nasal breadth to nasal height multiplied by 100), based on Max Muller’s speculation, which then became a tool of Race Science to classify Bharatiya communities. Risley lived and worked  in Bharat for four decades, during which  he used the Nasal Index as a tool to study  communities in the country extensively. His goal, in the meanwhile, was to separate ‘Aryan’ communities from the ‘non Aryan’ ones.

“In Bharat, we have diversity and plurality.  While we have different communities (jatis), we also have varnas, the qualities an individual has, not based on  intelligence  but based on personal aptitude,” explains Malhotra, who also adds that  before colonialism, the jati-varna system in the county had no association with race, ethnicity or genetics.

“It was better understood as a set of  distinctions based on inherited or traditional social status derived from work roles. Jati is a highly localized and intricately organized social structure.  One of the important aspects of jati that was  conveniently overlooked by Western Indologists was its dynamic nature allowing social mobility as well as occupational diversification. These rural structures were more horizontally organized than vertically stratified,” writes Malhotra.

However, the colonial imposition of  a hierarchical  framework and the distortions of jati to force fit it into a racial framework, completely altered and distorted the characteristics of the jati and the resulting misinterpretations highlighted its negative aspects. Meanwhile, Max Muller, who pioneered the  racial framework for studying jati,  had hidden evangelical motives. According to him, the organic holistic jati was “an impediment  to the conversion of Hindus.” Divisive strategies such as breaking it up, fragmenting and polarizing  jatis rendered the people vulnerable to  forced religious conversion.

Meanwhile, these precepts became pragmatic reality with the appointment of Sir Herbert Risely as the Commissioner for the first Census in the country, where he imposed his taxonomy and racial framework in classifying the people of the country. In the chapter ‘Lord Risley morphs Jati-Varna into Race’  in Breaking India, Malhotra writes about  Risley’s sewed approach in creating mutually exclusive ethnic categories and assigning them legal significance based on the Census data. In 1910, possibly in recognition of his significant Break Bharat contribution, Risley was appointed president of the Royal Anthropological Institute.

Risley’s Nasal Index became the gold standard for the British classification of people in Bharat, with data gathered being used to compare Dravidians, Santhals and other communities based on nose dimensions. He used the tool to validate the two-race theory (Aryans and non Aryans) and  graded the various castes based on the Index.

“The social  position of  a caste varies  inversely to its Nasal Index,” wrote Risley. In addition, to make matters worse, he classified jatis as Hindu and ‘tribes’ as non-Hindu.  As a result, the category of ‘tribes’ became officially  institutionalized, the definition of which is still used for legal purposes in Bharat as is the Census template.

Based on the 1901 Census of India, Risley wrote in the highly influential Imperial Gazette that there were 2,378 main castes and tribes (with sub castes) and 43 races.  Risley’s  dogmatic view that ‘Caste is race’  and that the ‘social position of the case is inversely proportional to the Nasal Index’ was opposed by a few scholars who found it logically and scientifically incompatible with the data form the ground. However, they were trivialised, marginalised and ignored  by the political power that was orchestrating this  fake grand narrative.

Risley applied the American slavery framework  to the interaction of the ‘Aryans’ and ‘non-Aryans’ and drew parallels between the American plantation owners and the slaves they imported. According to him, “this racial interaction formed the basis of caste.”

Such false racial categories based on gross misinterpretations that created imaginary histories and racial myths championed by colonial administrators and evangelists enabled them  to effectively balkanize  the sub-continent through the divide and rule policy. Equally important, it was the forerunner of separatist movements such as the contemporary Afro-Dalit Movement and anti-Brahmin movements.


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Dr. Nandini Murali
Dr. Nandini Murali is a communications professional,  author and researcher in Indic Studies.  She is a Contributing Editor with the HinduPost. She loves to wander in the forests with her camera. 

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